Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Robert J. Bast

Committee Members

Sara M. Ritchey, Jay C. Rubenstein, Mary C. Dzon


During the fifteenth century, when Christian spirituality had become increasingly feminized, a number of women in the northern and central regions of the Italian peninsula chose to embrace fully the vita apostolica, and certain of them led lives of such austere piety in imitatio Christi that they were later deemed worthy of beatification or canonization. They were sante vive—living saints—revered for their miraculous powers and regarded as agents of the divine. These women took vows as nuns or associated themselves with a religious order as tertiaries, and they dedicated themselves to strict lives of prayer, extreme fasting, and physical suffering as a means of gaining spiritual intimacy with Christ, as expressed through ecstatic mystical visions. They also served their communities as healers and spiritual advisors and counseled local political figures who relied upon their prophetic powers. The Catholic Church benefited from their celebrity, for these visionaries promoted the Church as the one true faith, at a time when the laity had cause to doubt. Before these holy women became such valued members of society, however, they each endured a period of trials and temptations from the devil, just as Christ had experienced in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. After overcoming the enemy, they emerged as spiritual leaders with significant influence in their own communities and beyond.

This dissertation focuses on three such women—the Augustinian Elena da Udine, the Franciscan Caterina da Bologna, and the Dominican Colomba da Rieti—and argues that their encounters with the devil were viewed as essential to their preparation for ministry, just as they were for Christ, and gave their hagiographers material with which to portray their subjects as authentic imitators of Christ, for they had even suffered, and more importantly overcome, demonic temptations as he had. At a time when theologians had begun to apply with greater scrutiny the principle of discretio spirituum to women’s devotional practices and behaviors, these three mystics successfully operated within the confines of orthodoxy while stretching the boundaries of acceptable forms of piety, and they were rewarded with veneration in life and in death.

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